Journalist and Human Rights Advocate



Why we're holding vigil for Quebec's Islamic Centre victims, the Ottawa Citizen

This past Sunday marked International Holocaust Memorial Day. Around the world, people gathered to reflect, share, and mourn the genocides that destroyed lives and shattered families in Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Darfur in decades past.

“Together we bear witness for those who endured genocide, and honour the survivors and all those whose lives were changed beyond recognition,” reads the United Kingdom-based Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website.

While it’s overwhelming to imagine the millions of people who have been killed for no other reason than their race, religion, or ethnicity, it’s also absolutely critical that we do remember them. It’s part of an ongoing healing process, points out sociologist Nancy Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.

Writing about the importance of memorials, Berns argues that remembrance provides an opportunity for people to share their stories, builds public bonds, documents history, and inspires movements for social change. “Storytelling does not just benefit survivors and victims’ families. Individual stories can help the world understand the human toll of mass tragedy,” she writes.

It’s why, Tuesday, thousands of people across Canada will be holding vigils and events to remember the six men killed at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec exactly two years ago.

Many of us are now familiar with the events of that horrific night. It was a frigid evening on Jan. 29, 2017 when Alexandre Bissonnette walked towards the mosque and began shooting. Within minutes, he had shot dead Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane and Azzedine Soufiane and had severely injured many others, including Aymen Derbali, who was paralyzed.

One of the widows, Khadija Thabti, recently shared that she continues to experience nightmares about that night and increasing anxiety around this time of year. One can’t help but deeply empathize, almost wishing she didn’t have to relive the memory. Yet we need public memorials and commemorations in order to demonstrate our collective commitment towards addressing the hate that would drive someone to murder her husband simply because he was Muslim.

“When societies have crisis of identity, or other forms of crisis – economic or political – it becomes all too easy for unscrupulous leaders to say ‘Those others among us, they’re the problem,’” surmised former Brock president and history professor Jack Lightstone during a lecture about the Holocaust at the Niagara Falls Military Museum this past weekend.

“It’s easy to blame the stranger among us, even if they’re not really a stranger at all. I think that’s the lesson.”

Lightstone’s words apply to the circumstances that drove Bissonnette to commit his atrocities. He told police that he wanted to save Canada from terrorist attacks, based on anti-Muslim rhetoric he was consuming online through the accounts of a wide range of far-right leaders, white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Court proceedings further revealed he was angered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s tweet welcoming refugees to Canada, the day after U.S. President Donald Trump’s had instituted the first so-called Muslim ban.

As is so often said, those who forget history are bound to repeat it. That’s what motivates people like Bryan Stevenson. He’s the founder of the American Equal Justice Initiative and the National Museum for Peace and Justice, which opened this past spring. The museum is the first of its kind to explore America’s painful history of “racial terror” and commemorate thousands of lynching victims.

“It breaks your heart to have to deal with this, but it will break your heart even more when your children and your grandchildren and their great-grandchildren are as separated and burdened by this legacy as we are,” Stevenson has said, finding inspiration on a visit to Germany where there are constant reminders of the Holocaust.

Here in Canada, hate crimes against Muslims increased by nearly 50 per cent the same year of the massacre, along with a significant rise in attacks on Jewish and Black communities. We clearly must do more to confront the hatred and bigotry that persists. Memorializing Jan. 29 with vigils, public memorials, and as a nationally designated day, are urgent and necessary steps.

Amira Elghawaby